Posts tagged ‘Nonfiction Monday’

Breakthrough!

Breakthrough.jpgTitle: Breakthrough!: How Three People Saved “Blue Babies” and Changed Medicine Forever
Author: Jim Murphy
ISBN: 9780547821832
Pages: 130 pages
Publisher/Date: Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, c2015.

It wasn’t only that the operation was very complex and risky. The surgery he was about to perform on Eileen’s struggling heart had never been done on a human before, let alone one so tiny or frail. This was why the balcony-type observation stand along the west side of room 706 was packed with curious Johns Hopkins staff and why a movie camera had been set up pointing at the operating table. If the operation worked — if the patient survived — history would be made.
Moreover, Blalock had never performed this procedure, not even on an experimental animal. In fact, the only person to have done it successfully start to finish, wasn’t an official member of the surgical team. According to hospital rules, he wasn’t even supposed to be in the room. But he was there now, at Blalock’s request, standing just behind the surgeon on a wooden step stool. His name was Vivien Thomas, and most people at the hospital thought he was a janitor. (xiii)

On Wednesday, November 29, 1944, history was made. The first ever operation on a child to increase blood flow to the heart was scheduled to take place. Not only was it a moment in medical history, but it was also a moment in women’s rights and African-American rights. For over a year Dr. Alfred Blalock, chief surgeon and researcher at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and his African-American research assistant Vivien Thomas had been studying the research of hearing-impaired pediatric physician Dr. Helen Taussig. At Taussig’s request, they had been searching for a means to solve this reoccurring problem of abnormal development of the heart, which had cost her the lives of over two hundred patients. When they finally develop what they think is a solution, they find themselves in a race against time with undeveloped technology and unpracticed procedures to save the life of a young child.

An interesting introduction to a rarely considered medical event, this narrative nonfiction provides background contextual information, primary source photographs, and simplified descriptions of scientific concepts. Mentioned in the short description above, this book could be used to spread knowledge about medical, women’s, or African-American history. Vivien Thomas is unable to attend medical school due to the economic collapse of the 1930s, and ends up being essentially educated on-the-job after he is hired by Blalock, ten years his senior. With his boss and upon first arriving at Johns Hopkins, Thomas is forced to confront racist tendencies that had been culturally ingrained for decades. Dr. Helen Taussig also had to confront others’ prejudices against her, including not being allowed to take more than one or two classes at a time and not being allowed to study in the same room as her classmates for fear she would “contaminate” the other students. Her gradual hearing loss also proved unique problems that she solved in order to continue the professional career track she had fought so hard to achieve. Other social issues at the time that are still prevalent today, including animal testing, sterilization methods, and insider industry information, are touched upon to provide context.

It’s the personal vignettes behind the discovery that create the compelling narrative. The inclusion of period photographs featuring the people and places involved all bring the incredible story to life. The medical concepts are broken down into the barest, most simplistic terms. While that makes it easy to understand for readers, additional visuals to aid in comprehending the surgery and the anatomy involved would have been appreciated. The sequence of development of the heart on page 28 and the drawing of the chest cavity inside a child on page 49 was extremely helpful in envisioning it, although the captain makes it sound like the drawing was done by Thomas. Even enlarging the newspaper clipping found on page 77 would have sufficed, to make it easier to read the information contained and see the drawing provided, although it is a remarkably clear and readable scan.

For a fuller picture of the historic event, it’s implications, and aftermath, readers should read the detailed source notes, which contain information that regrettably did not make it into the primary text. It’s my impression that most people neglect to read the included back matter in informational texts. For instance, while the text vaguely mentions that Thomas was later recognized, including a formal portrait, an honorary doctorate, and made head of the laboratory, the significance of his becoming an “instructor of surgery at the school, an extraordinarily rare appointment for someone who was neither a surgeon nor a doctor” is only mentioned in the source notes. Overall, the book does a solid job recognizing the accomplishments of scientists that no one has heard of or probably even considered investigating.

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.jpgTitle: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (Young Readers Edition)
Author: William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
ISBN: 9780803740808
Pages: 293 pages
Publisher/Date: Dial Books for Young Readers, an imprint of the Penguin Group LLC, c2015

Many of you have probably been saying, “But doesn’t everyone have electricity?” It’s true that most people in Europe and America are lucky to have lights whenever they want them, plus things like air-conditioning and microwave ovens. But in Africa, we’re not so lucky. In fact, only about eight percent of Malawians have electricity in their homes, and most of them live in the city.
Not having electricity meant that I couldn’t do anything at night. I couldn’t read or finish my radio repairs. I couldn’t do my homework or study for school. No watching television. It also meant that when I walked outside to the toilet, I couldn’t see the big spiders or roaches that liked to play in the latrine at night. I only felt them crunch under my bare feet.
Whenever the sun went down, most people stopped what they were doing, brushed their teeth, and went straight to bed. Not at ten p.m., of even nine o’clock–but seven in the evening! Who goes to bed at seven in the evening? Well, most of Africa. (54)

William Kamkwamba was born into a family of six sisters, located in a tiny village in the heart of the African country of Malawi.He spent his time studying for school, helping his family maintain their farm, and fixing radios in his spare time. When he was 13, tragedy struck as a drought swept the country, and with it extreme shortages of food and starvation. With no money for school and no crops to tend at the farm, William started spending time at the library. It was there he discovered the power of windmills, and the idea that a windmill could pump water from the well, fertilize their crops, and provide them with free electricity. He spent the next year teaching himself and collecting and buying scrap metal, including a rusty bicycle, a tractor fan, and a shock absorber. But would a teenager who barely passed middle school be able to design and assemble these pieces and parts together and make something?

This is an uplifting true story about the power of engineering, ingenuity, curiosity, and perseverance. William didn’t know about electricity when he first started taking apart and putting back together radios, but he wasn’t afraid to learn. After dropping out of school due to lack of funds, William tries valiantly to stay on top of his studies so he can rejoin the class next year. He copies his friend’s notes and visits the library often, which he describes in great detail. I can picture the dusty shelves stuffed haphazardly with books that libraries here in America probably discarded because they were out of date or didn’t have colored pictures, but their information is still relevant enough to get William the information he needs.

Anything he can’t find he’s willing to work to acquire. He pleads with this father to have the broken family bicycle. In order to pay for the services of a welder, he stacks firewood for hours to get enough money. When he needed washers, he collected bottle caps, pounded them flat, and hammered a hole into the center. It’s inspiring to think that this young man who so many would see as disadvantaged could do something so extraordinary that it would capture the public’s attention.While the book includes color photographs of his family and invention, it would have been nice and more enlightening if the book had included diagrams of his innovation. The descriptions are very detailed and paired with a picture you get an idea, but for children wanting to duplicate his efforts they may need to mimic his methods and do some more research.

William’s family is disadvantaged, and he recognizes it, but it doesn’t impact his happiness. He doesn’t complain about using the latrine or lacking running water or electricity, only bringing up these details to better explain his situation, not try to excuse it. Overall he has a relatively happy life, with friends and games and free time to pursue his passion, even if that happens to be electrical engineering. In American he’d probably be playing with Lego Mindstorms instead of old radios. It’s important for readers, especially here in the United States, to understand his circumstances and the uniqueness of his accomplishment, and that he had to improvise with what he had instead of purchasing something he needed. The scenes of famine are heart-wrenching, but not sensationalized, and I think every reader will grow teary-eyed at the matter-of-fact telling of the situation with his dog and the medical maladies that fall on William and his friends. It’s one thing to say that African nations are poor or undeveloped or suffering from a famine, but it’s quite different to read about it through the eyes of a child who experienced it and brings those feelings to life.

Rather than stay in American after college, it’s also unique to see that William wants to return to his country and work on projects for Africa, in Africa, and run by Africans. He doesn’t disparage his country or community, and wants to help it thrive by building on what is there, instead of changing it culturally or Americanizing it. Ending this blog post in the same way Kamkwamba ends his autobiography, hopefully his story will inspire others.

Often people with the best ideas face the greatest challenges–their country at war; a lack of money or education or the support of those around them. But like me, they choose to stay focused because that dream–as far away as it seems–is the truest and most hopeful thing they have. Think of your dreams and ideas as tiny miracle machines inside you that no one can touch. The more faith you put into them, the bigger they get, until one day they’ll rise up and take you with them. (290)

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

The Price of Freedom

Price of FreedomTitle: The Price of Freedom
Author: Judith Bloom Fradin and Dennis Brindell Fradin
Illustrator: Eric Velasquez
ISBN: 9780802721662
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Walker Books for Young Readers, c2013
Publication Date: January 8, 2013

Trouble began in early September 1858, when a ten-year-old boy spied several “rough-looking” men on the porch of an Oberlin flophouse. Suspecting that they were slave hunters, Oberlinians posted lookouts around the hotel.
Indeed, the men were slave hunters. They were led by Anderson Jennings, a Kentuckian who had been promised $500 per slave (equal to about $13,000 each in today’s money) for returning John and Frank to their former owners.

John and Frank had escaped from their master in January, 1856. Fleeing Kentucky, they crossed into Ohio where Quakers sheltered runaway slaves. Even though Ohio was a free state, they could still be legally captured, so the original plan was to continue on to Canada. Upon arriving in Oberlin, Ohio and learning the route was blocked, the two friends stayed in the friendly town, taking up jobs and living among its residents. That all changes when slave catchers come to town, and John is captured. With the law against them, residents of Oberlin demanded John’s release. But are they successful in this time of divided ideals and conflicting politics?

I was slightly disappointed by this book. While the story is unique, based on fact, and one I’d never heard of, the writing lacks the suspense that should probably be present. Almost half the story contains very short non-sequiturs introducing the people involved in rescuing John, which quickly bogs down and confuses the story. The artwork starts strong, and I was especially struck by the page where we see John and Frank peering over a fence with the moon lighting their path visible behind them. Surrounded by spooky, bare-limbed trees, it’s astonishing how well the mood is struck with that one picture. In contrast, the scene where the townspeople have gathered, demanding John’s release, looks hastily colored, with none of the details and only vague impressions and blobs of paint for some of the faces. Eric Velasquez’s artwork seems to lose something when doing larger scenes, and if he had stuck to the closeups and featured only a handful of people in each of his drawings, then I think it would have worked better.

The other thing missing from this book is map! While I’m impressed that the book provides a bibliography, further reading, and websites lists, along with a small note in the back, there is no map of either the route John and Frank took, or a state map simply identifying where Oberlin is located in correlation to Cleveland. On the suggested Oberlin College website, readers can view a picture of a monument dedicated to the Oberlinians who fought for John’s freedom, but there’s no mention of that monument in the book. Instead, it mentions a sculpture that “honors the role of the college and town” but there’s no picture of it in the book or on the website.

Overall, I feel like this very short story would have worked better in a compilation of little known tales involving either the underground railroad or civil war history since so little is known about the participants. Libraries in Ohio have a unique link to the story, and would do well to have it on hand for young school children. However, I’m not sure how much demand there will be outside of the immediately mentioned area. If this is a diamond in the rough, I think it still needs a little polishing.

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

Big Magic

Big Magic.jpgTitle: Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear
Author: Elizabeth Gilbert
ISBN: 9781594634710
Pages: 276 pages
Publisher/Date: Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, c2015.

There is a famous question that shows up, it seems, in every single self-help book ever written: What would you do if you knew that you could not fail? But I’ve always seen it differently. I think the fiercest question of all is this one: What would you do even if you knew that you might very well fail? What do you love doing so much that the words failure and success essentially become irrelevant? (pg. 259)

About halfway through the book, Elizabeth Gilbert summarizes her entire book in just two sentences: “The essential ingredients for creativity remain exactly the same for everybody: courage, enchantment, permission, persistence, trust – and those elements are universally accessible. Which doesn’t mean that creative living is always easy; it merely means that creative living is always possible.” (158) Disregard all the other distractions, excuses, and doubts, and just make an effort, and if you don’t think creativity is present at the start, it will be at the end, because it’s always available if you are willing to use it. She supports her claims with stories from her own past and those of people she has met, with a few quotes from other, primarily spiritual, sources.

If you are looking for the science behind creativity, or specific steps to increase or improve your creativity, you’ll be disappointed. I did something that I don’t typically do, and read the book with a packet of sticky notes. When I compiled those quotable moments, it amounted to less than two pages. Once I realized that she’d done TED Talks on creativity (which I haven’t seen), the dearth of real advice became more understandable, and it felt like she had tried to hard to expand her ideas to cover a book length.

Her personification of creativity and other traits as spirits was a detour I could have done without, especially in the chapter about “Enchantment”, which boils down creativity to a combination of a state of mind and dumb luck. The chapter about “Permission” was equally vague, stressing the fact you need to abandon your own doubts about whether you should be attempting creative endeavors. In fact all of the concepts mentioned are internalized, and Gilbert encourages people to either stop or start thinking in a certain way, with few suggestions on how to do that, at one point telling people that if they dress up and make themselves appealing, creativity will find them and want to work with them. I find myself shaking my head thinking “If only it were that easy”.

One portion I specifically found contradictory, in which she tells readers “Whenever anybody tells me they want to write a book in order to help other people, I always think Oh, please don’t. (98)” She defends herself by further justifying that “I did not write this book for you; I wrote it for me. I wrote this book for my own pleasure, because I truly enjoy thinking about the subject of creativity. It’s enjoyable and useful for me to meditate on this topic.” (100) While I agree that she seems to find pleasure in the writing, if she was just doing it for herself then she wouldn’t have published the book, and simply would have kept a meditation journal instead of a manuscript. Anyone who publishes anything has ideas that they want to share with people, and something as philosophical, abstract, and communicative about establishing patterns of behavior as this book is certainly intended to invoke change and ultimately help people; in this specific case, help them be creative. Readers may find kernels of truth, like I did with my two pages of quotes, but the book didn’t need the rest of the background noise.

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

Rhythm Ride

Rhythm Ride.jpgTitle: Rhythm Ride: A Road Trip Through the Motown Sound
Author: Andrea Davis Pinkney
ISBN: 9781596439733
Pages: 166 pages
Publisher/Date: Roaring Book Press, a division of Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings Limited Partnership, c2015.

Berry was sick of seeing his hard-earned creativity and the talents of black performers go unrewarded. He began to seriously consider building a record label that would allow him to produce the work of black artists, to publish his music, to have complete control over the money he and the singers earned, and also to have control over how black performers were portrayed to the public. (19)

In 1959, Berry Gordy secured an eight hundred dollar loan from his family to begin his dream, the music company Motown. Motown became known by its nickname Hitsville, as the production company put out hit after hit from big name, local talent like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, and Diana Ross. For slightly over a decade, Berry Gordy and his company, who were treated more like family, were behind some of the biggest hits in pop and R&B. But when Gordy moved to California to expand the company, the music lost its rhythm, and artists started pursuing other opportunities and other companies where they could garner the attention and money they felt they deserved. By the 1980s, only a few loyal artists were still garnering hits, and Gordy sold the company before the decade ended, as the era of Motown had already ended earlier.

The narrator is “the Groove,” which takes on the personality of a smooth talking tour guide who has a vested interest in your enjoyment, entertainment, and well-being. It makes the remembrance of pivotal historical moments, like the Civil Rights movement and assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Kennedy, more manageable, reassuring readers that it’s in the past and we lived through it while not deemphasizing the importance of the events. Sometimes we forget the narrator is even present, and other times that effort is stressed in multiple paragraphs that try to reestablish the road trip ambiance. Some readers may like it, while others might have preferred a more straightforward narration with less embellishment.

Little details, like the decorum and manners training that each artist received, break up the monotony of the presentation, which at times can read like a who’s who laundry list of best hits of the 1960s. There are hints of personality for some of the acts, especially when they are soloists instead of groups, but the groups almost become interchangeable, especially when they don’t have those back stories to distinguish them from the other groups presented. The recordings that were more political in nature, such as MLK’s speeches and the concept album featuring songs about the Vietnam War, were unknown to me, and I wish Pinkney had focused more on the aftermath of those publications, or the dissent in the group prior to publication. I feel like that is important to set the tone, and readers just received a minimalist view of the dissension caused by anti-war cover album, especially considering Marvin Gaye was Berry Gordy’s brother-in-law.

Copious amounts of photos help delineate the different groups, but they are primarily staged publicity shots and very few show either the inside workings of the company or the community and culture that would have provided context. There is one page in particular that would have done well for thorough editing. When introducing the Primettes, soon to be known as the Supremes, Pinkney identifies the women pictured as “Betty McGlown, Diane Ross, Mary Willson, and Florence Ballard” in both a caption and in the text on page 94. On page 95, “Barbara Martin left to have a baby, so the newly formed quartet was down to three singers.” Further research on my part leads me to conclude that both women were only temporarily involved in the group, so maybe it’s not really an error, but I wish the discrepancy wasn’t there. We also are presented with a picture of the Temptations with new member David Ruffin before his replacement of original member Elbridge “Al” Bryant is discussed in the narrative. Minor mistakes, granted, but it leads to a feeling of sloppy editing. Another missed opportunity is consulting first hand-account source material. The detailed source notes pages are much appreciated, but it’s rare that a listed source is from that time period directly, with most of the sources being commentary or biographies published decades after events occurred.

Part of the difficulty Pinkney faces is making the subject matter important to children, as most of them are only familiar with Motown music as being the old songs that their parents (or maybe even at this point their grandparents!) listened to. While I’m a fan of the “oldies” because my father played them for me, I think most readers are going to be more familiar with Taylor Swift, One Direction, and Adelle, just to name a few. If they are already familiar with the subject, great, but I don’t think they’ll be running to pick this one off the shelves, even with the great appealing cover and the local connection to Motown as I work at a Michigan library. I understand the difficulties this would have added to the production, but I feel it would have benefited greatly from the inclusion of a CD with at least a sampling of the songs discussed in the book.

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

The Underground Abductor

Underground Abductor.jpgTitle: The Underground Abductor
Series: Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales #5
Author/Illustrator: Nathan Hale
ISBN: 9781419715365
Pages: 128 pages
Publisher/Date: Amulet Books, an imprint of Abrams, c2015.

“Robert, Ben, Henry, We are leavin’. We’re goin’ NORTH. This Saturday night.”
“Why Saturday?”
“Nobody expects slaves to work on Sunday—we’ll have a whole day’s lead.”
“Who’s gonna lead the way?”
“I will. I’ll follow the North Star.”
“That’s your plan? You’re gonna follow a STAR?”
“That’s right, I’ll follow that star like Moses followed the Pillar of Fire.” (45)

Araminta Ross was born into slavery, and “by the time she was ten, Araminta had been hired out many times, and had the scars to prove it.” She lived with her six siblings and her mother, while her father worked at a neighboring lumber mill. Upon hearing of her impending sale, she makes her first attempt at escaping with her brother’s, but they get scared and return with her in tow. So the second time, she makes the trip by herself, securing herself a new life in Philadelphia and along with it a new name, Harriet Tubman. But she can’t forget those family members she left behind, and begins regular trips south to escort not only family but other slaves to freedom, first to Pennsylvania and then all the way to Canada. This is her story, told in graphic novel format, of the difficulties she faced and how she rightfully became a recognizable name in American history.

This was my first experience with Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales, although it is the fifth one in the series. It appears that Nathan Hale, the American Revolutionary spy, is set to being executed and is stalling his death by weaving stories from American history, Scheherazade style, to his executioners. Interruptions from his executioners ask the contextual questions and garners the answers that readers unfamiliar with this story might have, like who is Franklin Douglass, how did slavery work, and why was what Harriet did so dangerous. The only spot of color in the black, white, and gray illustrations is purple, which starts off pale and then intensifies as the dangers increase and the war creeps closer. Readers familiar with Harriet Tubman’s efforts will learn tiny details that may be new, like her birth name and the closed head injury she suffers as a child and the fact that family members (both immediate and extended) helped her evacuation efforts. Hale presents the tale with an immediacy and urgency that mimics the mood that must have permeated Tubman’s raids.

Details like how many times she went across to help her family, how many people she would take in different abductions, and how she kept everyone safe also help readers realize her commitment to the cause. There is a sense of spiritualism, garnered from Harriet’s visions, which are attributed to her head injury but are portrayed as being astonishingly helpful and accurate. Her life isn’t sugarcoated, revealing the whippings she received and the abandonment of her husband, and Hale is refreshingly upfront and honest when he doesn’t know the answers or the true facts. This is an accessible introduction to the abolitionist, and to the concept of the Underground Railroad and slavery.

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

 

Drowned City

Drowned City.jpgTitle: Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans
Author/Illustrator: Don Brown
ISBN: 9780544157774
Pages: 96 pages
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, c2015.

“Monday, August 29
The hurricane’s strength slips from category 5 to category 3. But it is still a monster, measuring four hundred miles across, with 121-mph winds. At the last moment, Katrina “wobbles” and steers a bit east of New Orleans, sparing the city a direct hit.” (12)

Published to coincide with the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, this slim volume starts before the storm and continues its coverage of the storm through the immediate aftermath.With a critical eye towards the efforts of various governments and agencies to react, he draws from multiple sources to use the words of those immediately affected by the disaster. While the city is still attempting to rebuild, and will probably continue their efforts into the foreseeable future, it’s an eye-opening account aimed at children who weren’t even alive when it happened.

Don Brown’s illustrations (which I’m told on the copyright page are “pen and ink with digital paint”) are the most affecting part of this story. Brown wisely lets the pictures tell most of the story. The double paged spread (which is divided into two panels so as to avoid loosing any of it in the bleed) on pages 30-31 is just one example. Simply narrated with “People fight the flood. Some succeed. Others do not.” readers’ eyes are arrested by the single body sinking under the water as others struggle for gasping breaths and rooftop rescuers struggle to pull them to safety. An earlier set of four panels, vertically stacked, show flip-book style a wave crashing into the town of Buras, Louisiana, with only the water tower remaining. You see the pictures and the devastation before being reassured that, in this case, “The townspeople have all evacuate and no one dies.” Those are just two of many examples of the arresting artwork and well-placed text blocks. The cover is stamped that a “Portion of the proceeds from this book has been donated to New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity.” Hopefully the funds will be put to good use. Pair with the earlier reviewed Finding Someplace, as many of that main character’s fictionalized experiences are detailed in this emotionally moving graphic novel. Highly recommended.

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

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